Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Asymptotic Behavior

Rational arguments are generally considered a worthwhile method for discerning truth. In reality, we have a poor grasp on the evidence at hand and are plagued by our imperfect reasoning abilities. Like a child playing with a puzzle, putting some small shape into a hole meant for the larger piece, we'll rejoice: "It fits!" until someone points out our error. It's not just the arguments themselves, but this dialectic that leads to truth. In some ways, it's similar to a damped oscillation: back and forth, but eventually converging on a single value. With an oscillation, we can predict the end state from some initial measurements — can we do that with the dialectic as well? It's wise to understand different sides of an issue, but what if we go a step further and try to understand the interplay between those sides? Does it change things if we think about the entire continuous process instead of the discrete present state?

Consider the argument from first cause, also called the cosmological argument, as allegedly "misunderstood" by critics):

  1. Everything has a cause
  2. ∴ The universe has a cause
  3. ∴ God (the cause of the universe) exists
Some critics will argue with the first premise, citing quantum theory. Others will respond by questioning the nature of "God" (rather than attatcking the argument itself): "Wouldn't God require a creator as well?". Because that idea is unsatisfactory, the argument is restated by the theists:
  1. Everything with a beginning has a cause
  2. The universe has a beginning
  3. ∴ The universe therefore has a cause
  4. ∴ God (the cause of the universe) exists
If we accept 1 by appealing to everyday experience, and 2 based on big bang theory, 3 follows and 4 is trivially true. This would prove the existence of something transcendent (i.e.: separate from this space-time called "the universe"). However, this "God" could be anything from a personal, loving entity to Linde's quantum foam.

This specific argument (which is obviously ridiculously oversimplified and ignorant of any continued debate) I'm not so concerned about — it's the process. Starting with a single argument from the theist, we're left with another argument both theists and naturalists would accept. In general, this seems to be the "process" which a dialectic will follow over time (the behavior of the oscillation): controversial premises are argued away (or clarified), leaving some unintended and impotent conclusion. Perhaps you can only prove trivial things when you have a valid argument and premises both sides agree on? All the interesting claims seem to be reserved for assumption.

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